Thomas Merton’s Last Three Days

This is an extract from the revised edition of Living With Wisdom, a biography of Thomas Merton written by Jim Forest and published by Orbis Books. Footnotes have been removed.

On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Merton made his last journal entry. He was off to say Mass at the Church of Saint Louis, whose name had become his in Trappist life, then to have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation before going to the Sawang Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center.

The meeting place was at Samutprakan, 29 miles south of Bangkok. Merton arrived in the afternoon and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two. The conference began the next day with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Events of the day included an evening discussion on marriage and celibacy.

Few of the monks got much sleep that night. A chorus of cats had come out to sing the night office on nearby roofs. Following crescendos of cat howling, those in adjacent rooms heard Merton’s laughter.

Merton’s paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” was presented the next morning. Merton, under orders from his abbot to avoid the press, was made nervous by Dutch and Italian television crews which had turned up to film his lecture.

One of the crucial issues confronting the monk, Merton pointed out, is what his position is and how he identifies himself in a world of revolution. This wasn’t simply a matter of how to survive an enemy who is intent on either destroying religion or converting those of religious convictions to atheism. Rather, it was a matter of understanding, beyond present models of Marxism and monasticism, the fundamental points of similarity and difference.

He recognized significant similarities. The monk, after all, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures … [saying] that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” In addition, both monk and Marxist share the idea that each should give according to his capacity and receive according to his need. But while the Marxist gives primary emphasis to the material and economic structures of life, seeing religious approaches as empty mystification, the monk is committed to bringing about a human transformation that begins at the level of consciousness.

“Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin with the consciousness of the individual seeking to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.”

This is emphatically the vocation of the monk “who seeks full realization … [and] has come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.” At the deepest level, the monk is teaching others how to live by love. For Christians, this is the discovery of Christ dwelling in all others.

Only with such love, Merton went on, is it possible to realize the economic ideal of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need. But in actuality many Christians, including those in monastic communities, have not reached this level of love and realization. They have burdened their lives with too many false needs and these have blocked the way to full realization, the monk’s only reason for being.

Merton told a story he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche of a Buddhist abbot fleeing from his Tibetan monastery before the advance of Chinese Communist troops. He encountered another monk leading a train of twenty-five yaks loaded with the treasures of the monastery and “essential” provisions. The abbot chose not to stay with the treasure or the treasurer; traveling light, he managed to cross the border into India, destitute but alive. The yak-tending monk, chained to his treasure, was overtaken by the soldiers and was never heard of again.

“We can ask ourselves,” Merton said, “if we are planning for the next twenty years to be traveling with a train of yaks.” Monasticism, after all, is not architecture or clothing or even rules of life. It is “total inner transformation. Let the yaks take care of themselves.” The monastic life thrives whenever there is a person “giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to love God and reach union with him.”

Authentic monasticism cannot be extinguished. “It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. It does not depend on cultural factors, and it does not depend on sociological or psychological factors. It is something much deeper.”

Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until the evening session. He concluded with the words, “So I will disappear,” adding the suggestion that everyone have a Coke.

At about 3 p.m., Father François de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door but there was no response. Shortly before 4 o’clock Father de Grunne came down again to get the cottage key from Merton and to reassure himself that nothing was the matter. When there was no answer he looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. Father de Grunne tried to open the door but it was locked. With the help of others, the door was opened.

There was a smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. Dom Odo Haas, Abbot of Waekwan, tried to lift it and received an electric shock that jerked him sideways, holding him fast to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine Say pulled the plug.

A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of the head. The priests gave Merton absolution, then Dom Odo went to get the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Dom Rembert Weakland, who gave Merton extreme unction. A doctor arrived, Mother Edeltrud Weist, prioress of Taegu Convent in Korea. She checked for pulse and eye reaction to light. A police test of the fan showed that a “defective electric cord was installed inside its stand…. The flow of electricity was strong enough to cause the death of a person if he touched the metal part.”

After Merton’s body was released to Dom Weakland, it was washed, then taken to the chapel. There was a prayer vigil throughout the night at the side of the body.

The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam. From Oakland, California, it continued by civilian carrier, at last reaching the Abbey of Gethsemani the afternoon of December 17.

The monks at the abbey had been informed of the death by Dom Flavian during their mid-day meal on December 10. In the days that followed, The Seven Storey Mountain was read aloud during meals in the refectory. “Some of us saw a considerable irony in fact that the refectory reader was Father Raymond Flanagan,” recalls Father Patrick Reardon, then a member of the community, “who had been carrying on a running feud with Father Louis for about as long as any of us could remember.”

One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton “now knows more theology than any of us.” The brother responded, “Well, Reverend Father, he always did.”

Dom Flavian and Father John Eudes Bamberger identified the body at the undertakers in New Haven, where the casket was briefly opened. “I readily identified the body though it was already bloated and swollen considerably,” Father John Eudes wrote. “There was no doubt it was Father Louis.”

The casket arrived at the monastery only a couple of hours before the afternoon funeral Mass and was placed in the abbey basilica. Father Timothy Kelly, later to succeed Dom Flavian as abbot, and Father Patrick Reardon prayed the psalms over the body for the hour or more prior to the funeral.

The funeral Mass was composed by Father Chrysogonus Waddell. On the cover of the Liturgy booklet was a text from The Sign of Jonas: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My Mercy…. Have you lost sight of me Jonas My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

Part of the Book of Jonah was read aloud. At the end of the Mass, there was a reading from The Seven Storey Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence, “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church. Normally Trappists were buried without a casket. Merton was one of two exceptions. The other had been Dom Frederick Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton in 1941 and encouraged him to write. Dom Frederick had also died while traveling.

“A whole bunch of us grabbed shovels to fill in Father Louis’s grave at the end of the service,” Father Patrick recalled. “I remember Father Raymond going at it with the gusto he brought to every enterprise. Toward the end of the burial, it began to rain, so we were quite damp when we returned to the church.”

With the body came an official declaration of Merton’s effects, appraised in dollars. The items listed included these five:

1 Timex Watch $10.00
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames Nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary Nil
1 Rosary (broken) Nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child Nil

There was also the memory of Merton’s last words. Following the morning conference, Father de Grunne told Merton that a nun in the audience was annoyed that Merton had said nothing about converting people.

“What we are asked to do at present,” Merton responded, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

The icon Merton had with him contains its own last words, silent on one side, and on the back a brief extract from the Philokalia, written in Greek in Merton’s hand:

“If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.”

* * *

Lord, that I might see: talk at the bishops’ peace dinner

“I was hungry and you fed me” by the Master of Alkmaar, now in the care of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Bishops’ Peace Dinner text / 26 November 2019 / an annual event held in Baltimore and sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship

By Jim Forest

Images referred to are in this album:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157711100733001

[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.

[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.

[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”

This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.

[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.

[photo of Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer in my command, Commander John Marabito, plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.

[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.

[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.

[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”

Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.

[drawing of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.

[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.

[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.

[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.

Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.

[Franz Jägerstätter]
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.

[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”

An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in the coming months. It’s a film not to miss.

[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office in 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.

[painting: “I was hungry and you fed me”]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”

Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!

— Jim Forest

* * *

Thomas Merton on Compassion and peacemaking

photo by Jim Forest: Merton and Dan Berrigan during retreat on ‘the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964

A basic question for those involved in planning protest actions is how to reach and change the minds of those who feel accused, judged and condemned by the protest and react defensively and even angrily if not violently. It was a topic that Thomas Merton wrote to me about of several occasions in the sixties.

Here is an extract from a lecture I gave a few years ago on Merton’s advice to peacemakers.

Jim Forest

* * *

Despite his physical distance from centers of protest activity in the 1960s, Thomas Merton was quite able to relate to those in the thick of protest thanks to his vivid memories of equivalent activities from his student days at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the feeling of being a survivor of the shipwrecked thirties,” he wrote me early in 1963, “one of the few that has kept my original face before this present world was born.”

What he found was often missing among protesters was compassion. Those involved in protests tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo, while at the same time viewing themselves as models of what others should be. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger, becomes a whirlpool of self-righteousness, and even becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others rather than someone who helps open the door to conversion. As he put it in one letter:

“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears … and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. These are, after all, the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Most people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. As he put it:

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Compassion was again stressed by Merton during a small retreat for peacemakers that he hosted in November 1964. He raised a provocative question: “By what right to we protest?” It wasn’t a question I had ever before considered. I was born into a family in which protest was a normal activity. While not by nature a person drawn to protest, as a young adult I found myself seeing protest as an unfortunate necessity. I could not watch preparations for nuclear war and fail to raise a dissenting voice or refuse to participate in actions of resistance. To protest was a duty, period. But by raising the “by what right” question, Merton forced me to consider that protest, if it is to have any hope of constructive impact on others, has to be undertaken not only with great care but with a genuine sympathy for those who object to one’s protest, who feel threatened and angered by it, who regard you as a traitor. After all, what we are seeking is not just to make some noise but to help others think freshly about our social order and the direction we’re going.

When compassion and love are absent, Merton insisted, actions that are superficially nonviolent tend to mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he wrote in one of his most profound and insightful letters:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.”

Merton noticed that peace activists sometimes identify too much with sectarian ideologies or with particular political parties. In his view peace activity should communicate liberating possibilities to others, left, right and center. As he put it to me in one letter:

“It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.”

One more aspect that Merton helped me understand, the role of prayer:

We are, as Christians, commanded to love our opponents, adversaries and enemies and to pray for them. For many people today, Donald Trump is at the top of our enemies list. But how many Christians who are at odds with Trump’s policies and methods in fact pray for him? Prayer is an essential first step in the path of loving enemies.

Many American Christians regard Trump with loathing but would rather jump off a cliff than pray for him. But the moment one begins to pray for people we resist praying for, a border within ourselves is crossed. We may see no change in the adversary for whom we are praying, but at the very least we begin to see a change in ourselves.

The person we hate needs to be seen through the lens of compassion. In the case of Trump, hating him will certainly not generate a force that leads to constructive change either in him or in his supporters.

My own take on Trump is that he probably has experienced little if any real love from infancy onward. Like so many children of the ultra-wealthy, he was, and remains, a rich orphan. Add him to your prayer list.

* * *

An essay that includes much more from Merton on this topic:

Thomas Merton: Peacemaker in a Time of War

For an in-depth treatment, see my book, “The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers”:

The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

* * *
18 November 2019

St Francis and the Seventh Beatitude

engraving by Fritz Eichenberg

by Jim Forest

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” — Matthew 5:9

No saint has been more identified with the beatitude of peacemaking than Saint Francis of Assisi. The most famous prayer for peace, echoing the seventh beatitude, is attributed to him: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether or not these exact words were said by Francis, the prayer sums up his life and at the same time illustrates how disturbing Christ’s peace can be to those who are basically pleased with the way things are.

As a young man Francis seemed well on his way to realizing all of his father’s expectations: he was attractive, ambitious, popular among his peers, useful in his father’s cloth shop on Assisi’s main square, so well dressed that he was a walking advertisement for his father’s wares. However, his life began to change course after a year-long period of imprisonment following a battle with the neighboring town of Perugia in the year 1202. Francis, then twenty years old, was lucky not to have been among the many maimed or killed in the fighting. He had imagined the glory of battle and of being a man-of-arms for years, but now he had seen the reality of war: hatred turning beautiful faces into hideous masks, twisting sane minds to madness. Freed at last by payment of a ransom, he returned home disillusioned and gravely ill. He spent months recovering.

The first glimpse we have of the transformation taking place in Francis’s soul happened when he was riding outside the town and came upon a young man whose family had lost its property and fortune because of the war. All they had left was a ruined tower. The youth wore rags. Francis got off his horse and gave away his own splendid clothing.

Then there was the day he stopped to pray in the chapel of San Damiano. The building was in the final stages of decay, but it still possessed a large, cross-shaped image of the crucifixion painted in the ancient iconographic tradition, thus an image stressing less the suffering of Christ than his free gift of himself. Having given up dreams of glory in war, and finding moneymaking and spending a circular path going nowhere, he was desperate to have some sign of what God wanted him to do. Then, in the darkness, he heard Christ whisper to him, as if the icon itself were speaking: “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”

Taking the words literally, Francis set about the hard labor of rebuilding a chapel that no one else regarded as needed, financing the project by selling off some valuable items from his father’s warehouse. This unauthorized action caused an explosion of paternal wrath that culminated in a trial before the bishop in Assisi’s marketplace. Francis not only admitted his fault and restored his father’s money but removed all his garments, presenting them to his father with the words, “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’.” The astonished bishop hastily covered Francis with his own mantle. Thus Francis cut the last threads binding him to the ambitions that had dominated his earlier life.

By now Francis had only one ambition: to live according to the gospel. He understood this to mean a life without money, wearing the same rags beggars wore, and owning nothing that might stir up the envy of others and thus give rise to violence. He wanted to be one of the least, a little brother living in poverty, rather than a great man.

What was most surprising was the spirit of joy that surrounded Francis. His customary greeting to those he met was “pace e bene” — “peace and goodness.” Before long a dozen friends joined him, forming the nucleus of a new order, the Minores (the Lesser Brothers, in contrast to the Majores, the great ones who ruled the cities and organized wars). They were not simply poor but had, he explained, married the most beautiful bride, Lady Poverty. Assisi’s bishop didn’t approve. “You and your brothers are a disgrace,” he told Francis. “At least you can provide what will make you a bit more respectable.” “O Domini mi,” replied Francis, “if we had possessions we should need weapons to protect them.”

In 1210 the brothers walked to Rome and won approval for their simple rule of life from Pope Innocent III — this despite advice the pope had received that such absolute poverty as Francis’s rule decreed was impractical. Legend explains that Pope Innocent had a dream of Francis in his rags preventing Rome’s principal church from collapsing.

Francis, then twenty-eight, was to live only another sixteen years, but in his short life he left us with a treasure chest of stories about what can happen when someone tries with every fiber of his being to live the peace of Christ in the face of the world’s violence.

Among the most well-attested stories in Francis’s life is his meeting in 1219 with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, shortly after a crusader victory at the port city of Damietta (modern Dumyat) on the Nile Delta. Francis, who opposed all killing no matter what the cause, sought the blessing of the cardinal who was chaplain to the crusader forces to go and preach the gospel to the sultan. The cardinal told him that the Muslims understood only weapons and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was to kill them. At last the cardinal stood aside, certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother traveling with him, were being led to die as martyrs. The two left the crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, and then brought them before Malik-al-Kamil, who asked if they wished to become Muslims. Saying yes would save their lives. Francis replied that they came to seek his conversion; if they failed in their effort, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s gospel; whether or not he made such a proposal, going unarmed into the enemy’s stronghold was analogous to leaping into a fire.

For a month Francis and the sultan met daily. Though neither converted the other, the sultan had such warmth for his guests that not only did he spare their lives but gave them a passport allowing them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control and presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn, which is now among the relics of the saint kept in the Basilica of Assisi. It is recorded that “the two [Francis and Malik-al-Kamil] parted as brothers.”

What a different history we would look back upon if Muslims had encountered Christians who did not slaughter their enemies. When the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, no inhabitant of the city was spared — men, women, and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the crusaders’ horses waded in blood. While Christians in the first three centuries would have taken a nonviolent example for granted, by the thirteenth century Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. Christianity in the West was preaching the holiness of war.

Another of Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker comes toward the end of his life and concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you anymore, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.

While the encounters with the sultan and the wolf were later embellished, nonetheless certain aspects of both stories shine through the embroidery. In each instance Francis gave an example of love that refuses weapons. His courage is impressive; he was not only praying for enemies but meeting them, even at the risk of his own life. After all, to die in war for the kings of this earth has been the fate of millions of people; why should those who serve the gospel hesitate to risk their lives for the king of heaven?

Francis became, in a sense, the soldier he had dreamed of becoming as a boy; he was just as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defense of others. There was only this crucial difference. His purpose was not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary; this required refusing the use of weapons of war, because no one has ever been converted by violence. Francis always regarded conversion as a realistic goal. After all, if God could convert Francis, anyone might be converted. But such actions — equivalent to leaping into a furnace — are only possible when nothing in life is more important than Christ and his kingdom, a discipleship that begins with poverty of spirit and ascends to being an ambassador of Christ’s peace.

One of Francis’s many other remarkable acts of peacemaking was his founding a third order — a society for lay people — whose rule obliged members to be unarmed: “They are to be reconciled with their neighbors and [are] to restore what belongs to others…. They are not to take up deadly weapons, or bear them about, against anybody…. They are to refrain from formal oaths [which might bind them to military service]…. They are to perform the works of mercy: visiting and caring for the sick, burying the dead, and caring for the poor…. They should seek the reconciliation of enemies, both among their members and among non-members.” (To dig deeper, see Francis of Assisi by Arnaldo Fortini (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p 522; also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Order_of_Saint_Francis for an outline of the rule and its history.)

“They are truly peacemakers,” Saint Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”

— extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

* * *

Lord, that I might see

images: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157711100733001

[air view of the Abbey of Gethsemani]
One of the significant events of my life was being a participant in a retreat on the spiritual roots of peacemaking and protest hosted by Thomas Merton and held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in November 1964. It was a formative event in the founding of the Catholic Peace Fellowship 55 years ago.

[cover of The Seven Storey Mountain]
Only three years earlier I had been pointed in quite a different direction. I was a third class petty officer working with a Navy meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau just outside Washington, D.C. I was also a recent Catholic convert. One of the books I read in that period of my life was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he has a lot to say about the formation of his conscience. Regarding the issue of war and killing, he didn’t want to do anything that he couldn’t imagine Christ doing. He wrote to his draft board declaring himself a conscientious objector.

[icon of Christ Pantocrator]
As Merton explained in The Seven Storey Mountain: “[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.”

This line of attending to the Gospel became quite urgent for me personally when I was asked to fill out a form that included a difficult question: Were there any circumstances in which I might not be able to perform the duties which I might be be called upon to take.

[ruins of war — view of Dresden after the fire storm]
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would not get me into trouble. Getting back to my base on the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of the Church’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties.

[Anne Frank]
Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers and police who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it. Finally I composed this paragraph:

[Vietnamese children fleeing napalm attack]
“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

[Navy Commander John Marabito]
To make a long story short, thanks to the support of a senior officer, Commander John Marabito, in my command plus several priests —— one in my parish, one a Navy chaplain, one teaching at Catholic University — not many weeks later I was given an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection. It was the starting point of a vocation in peace work that still goes on.

[cover of The Long Loneliness]
Once out of uniform, my next step was joining the Catholic Worker community in New York. That decision was in part influenced by another book I had read while in the Navy, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Her life found its center point in the same Gospel sentence that so influenced Thomas Merton: “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

[photo of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin]
The idea of launching the Catholic Peace Fellowship began taking root not long after I joined the Catholic Worker, but it wasn’t until three years later, 1964, that I began collaborating with several friends in actually starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. One of our key advisors was Thomas Merton.

[Eric Gill engraving of Christ healing the man born blind]
The retreat in Kentucky began with a welcome from Merton which had its focal point in three Latin words: Domine ut videam! Lord, that I might see! This is Bartimaeus’s desperate appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes. These few words are at the heart of every Christian life that attempts to shape itself around the Beatitudes, the eighth of which is “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins with seeing — seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, seeing our lives in the light of the kingdom of God, seeing those who suffer, seeing how interconnected we are, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies. What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. The day-to-day challenge is to be aware of the divine presence in the other, whoever that may be. It’s a struggle not to be blinded by fear.

[Catholic Worker October 1961– top half of page 1]
As Merton wrote in an essay published in The Catholic Worker, “The root of war is fear.”

Blindness is a major topic in the Gospels. It concerns not only those, like Bartimaeus, whose eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight, but all of us. .Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys life, to mark what reveals the kingdom of God and what obscures it.

[drawing by Jim Forest of A.J. Muste]
At the Merton retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste, a leading figure in the American peace movement. As a seminary student, Martin Luther King had first learned about the path of nonviolence in a lecture given by A.J. Muste. He later became one of King’s advisers. A.J. had devoted many years of his life to work for nuclear disarmament. Before his death in 1967, he played a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War.

[fall maple leaf]
But it is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that shortly before coming to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, he was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he had been given the eyes of Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone, even Dorothy Day, look at the world around him more attentively, so full of awe and gratitude. No leaf or flash of color went unappreciated. He reminded me of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

[Nagasaki after the nuclear explosion]
One of the topics in our retreat conversations was technology. On the one hand, technology has the potential to solve many problems. I recall how grateful Merton was for the ingenious Coleman lantern that illumined his hermitage. On the other hand, technology can create a hellish darkness. It can destroy whole cities in a blinding nuclear flash while incinerating millions of people.

[Pandora opening the box]
One sentence that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society poised on the edge of unprecedented self-inflicted catastrophe is developing a capacity to envision consequences — to foresee, for example, that a nuclear weapon, so long as it exists, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will kill vast numbers of innocent people.

[icon of the Last Supper – the apostles with Christ]
Merton and I carried on a frequent correspondence that began soon after I joined the Catholic Worker and lasted until his death — seven years of letters. In a letter he sent me several years after the retreat, he remarked that peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work of the highest order. It means becoming more Christ-like. It’s work that centers on conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of others. Drawing on the example of the apostles, we need to keep in mind that no one is converted by anger or contempt or self-righteousness. Only love pries open the doors that enmity locks. In fact to really be effective peace work needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians.

Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if he is someone currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. God never gives up on any of us.

[Franz Jägerstätter]
One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man not many people had heard of at the time. Gordon Zahn’s book about Jägerstätter, In Solitary Witness, had only just been published. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. He was aware of the satanic character of Nazism and spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hellish nature of Hitler’s movement. He paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. Over the years Jägerstätter has come to be recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Linz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies or to have a role in the Nazi concentration camps and the structures which siphoned Jews and others into them. In fact, many bishops were outspoken supporters of Hitler’s wars.

[Franz Jägerstätter – Austrian postage stamp]
A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no” under certain circumstances: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. No, I would rather die than join in a parade to hell.”

An item of good news is that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter is now about to become much better known. A film about him, “A Hidden Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, is due for release in 2020. It’s a film not to miss.

[Jim Forest and Tom Cornell in the CPF office 1966]
The retreat played a major role in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and soon after was joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan, another participant in the retreat, becoming in effect our chaplain. Our core work was assisting young Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life shaped by the works of mercy.

[painting: I was hungry and you fed me]
To conclude: It all has to do with how we see each other. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If I do not see Christ in the beggar at the church door, I will not find him in the chalice.”

Domine ut videam. Lord, that I might see!

— Jim Forest

* * *

Kanisstraat: exploring a street name

Alkmaar in the 16th century. The painting is a panel in the Works of Mercy series now in the care of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The artist is known only as the Master of Alkmaar.

We live on a small, traffic-free street, Kanisstraat, in the historic center of the Dutch city of Alkmaar. Kanisstraat has been our address since 1982, when the neighborhood was run down and houses cheap. We’re just a minute’s walk from the town’s most impressive structure, the cathedral of Saints Laurence and Matthew, completed in 1518 after several generations of construction.

Nudged by curiosity and with assistance from staff at the nearby Regional Archive, we’ve recently done a little historic research and, in the process, found a book on the origin of central Alkmaar’s street names, including ours.

We learned that in the fifteenth and most of the sixteenth centuries, the Kanisstraat was just outside the town’s western border. Before the expansion and fortification of the town in 1573, our little street was much longer, extending out into the countryside. The further end was populated by the poorest people of the city, the ones who, for various reasons, were relegated to the outskirts: the unskilled, the disabled, widows, the mad, the otherwise unsavory. They mainly lived by begging. In the process of wall and canal construction due to Alkmaar’s enlargement, the hovels of the poor on the Kanisstraat were torn down.

The houses on the Kanisstraat closest to the center were more substantial. At  Kanisstraat 1, next door to us, stands a building that was, in those days, the Opmaar Inn. Built in 1540, it’s among Alkmaar’s oldest surviving houses. The alms house across the street from us, a four-sided structure with a garden in the middle, was founded by the families Paling and van Foreest in 1540.  It’s in approximately the same location as a former convent of Poor Clares. The section of the alms house on the Kanisstraat side was added in 1670. In 1880, six small houses for workers, each building five meters wide, were erected; what structures they replaced we don’t yet know.

To our surprise, in his entry on Kanisstraat, the author, T.P.H. Wortel, city archivist, drew attention to one of our favorite paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, “The Seven Works of Mercy,” a work whose maker is known only as the Master of Alkmaar. It was created about 1504 and originally hung in the cathedral. In the seven panels, one sees Alkmaar as was at the time, including some of its populace — both the well-off and the poor and crippled.

Christ is in each panel but in several is easily overlooked. Among the beggars in the first panel, there he is — the gray-robed, un-haloed man quietly gazing at the viewer rather than, like the others he is with, focusing on the married couple who are distributing bread to those in need. Without words, the panel bears witness to the text from Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you fed me.” Each of the seven panels is a reminder that what we do to the least person, we do to Christ.

In the foreground of the first panel, pay attention to the indigo-jacketed man. A noteworthy detail is the wicker basket, called in those days a kanis, that we get a glimpse of on his back. The kanis was for collecting bread, the staple food of the poor. It was standard equipment for beggars. (The word kanis has a Greek root, kanistron, meaning “bread basket.”)

Were the name of the Kanisstraat translated into English, it could justifiably be called Beggar Street.

— Jim Forest

Suggestion: Look at all the panels in the Works of Mercy painting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157623272202186

1 September 2019

* * *

From Oude Alkmaarse Straatnamen, by T.P.H. Wortel, Alkmaar city archivist (translation by Nancy Forest-Flier)

Op 4 June 1573, two businessmen of the city of Alkmaar met at the Opmaar Inn run by landlord Jan Gerrytszoon “on the corner of the Canysstraet” [in today’s spelling Kanisstraat]: the skilled and well-known surveyor Louris Pieterszoon and his young and lesser-known colleague, Adriaen Anthoniszoon, who later became famous for his construction of city fortifications. What they ate for the 27 stuivers they paid is unknown to us, but we can suspect that they were discussing the construction of Alkmaar’s new fortifications to the west and the east of the city. This same Kanisstraat was very much affected by this work. Before this time, the Kanisstraat was a long street almost completely located in farmlands that ran straight from the old Geest Gate to the Wognum District. Now most of it was disappearing for the creation of the new city wall and wide canal that would surround the city. Before the siege began [in the war against the Spanish in 1573], the Kanisstraat was reduced to a narrow side street of the Geest and ended in a dead-end at the new city wall. On the north side of the street were the dwellings of the Paling and Van Foreest Alms House [still in existence], established in 1540, and on the south side were a few modest little houses, one of which must have been the Opmaar Inn on the corner of the Kanisstraat and the Geest.

So before 1573, the Kanisstraat was a long street that ran outside the city limits. A list of principal occupants of these houses dated March 1519 reports no fewer than 41 names! Among those occupants were a few craftsmen: a cooper, a weaver, a blacksmith and two furriers. Claes de Lombairt will have lived there, whose name suggests he ran a “table of lending” (a “bank”), and Herck the ferryman may have operated the Bergen ferry that ran to the lake just past the Wognum District. Next to him were two sisters, Aef and Lijsbet, who may or may not have answered to the name of Rondebillen (Round Bottoms).

The 1493 registry of revenues collected from the “hearth tax” “in the Kanisstraat” lists 21 stone hearths. Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of residents are these words: “The people living in the Canisstraet live mostly on bread.” So there were many poor folks on the Kanisstraat who lived by begging, and in those days beggars usually carried a basket in which to carry the bread and other foodstuffs they were given.

* * *

Kanistraat as it is today, looking from its west end (photo: Jim Forest)

A view of the Kanisstraat from the east end; the house on the corner, originally an inn, was built about 1540.
Kanisstraat 1 as it was in 1935.
Cornelius Drebbel’s map of Alkmaar as it was in 1597, 24 years after the town was expanded both on its west and south sides. The truncated Kanisstraat is one block below the fortified bridge over the Singel.
Detail of Jacob van Deventer’s map of Alkmaar, 1560, showing the full extent of the Kanisstraat before the town’s enlargement in 1573.

Trust, Another Word for Faith

apse mosaic, Church of Sts Cosmos and Damian, Rome

By Jim Forest

“In God we trust — all others pay cash.” This was the message over the cash register in a delicatessen I often frequented in Manhattan’s Lower East Side half a century ago. It was a humorous way for a shopkeeper to communicate his determination to keep his small business from being buried in a cemetery of IOUs.

Like that merchant, most of us are cautious when it comes to money. We are well advised not to be gullible about the claims of advertisers, the guarantees of salesmen and the crowd-pleasing assurances of politicians. We have learned, often the hard way, to be careful about whom we trust, including those who court our applause and demand our obedience. “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help,” the 146th Psalm reminds us. These cautionary verses are so important that they are read or sung every Sunday in Orthodox churches: “When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

Yet even though prudent watchfulness is needed in many areas of life, trust is at the core of our social existence. Every morning, parents entrust their young children to the care of others. We trust our doctors and nurses to do their best in their attempts to keep us healthy and alive. We trust the local supermarket not to sell us salmonella-laden eggs.

Yet there is always an undercurrent of caution. When we get right down to it, it’s hard to trust ourselves. Even what we have witnessed with our own eyes and ears and have vivid memories of is not a hundred percent reliable. Recollections are notoriously unreliable. Innocent people have been executed due to the faulty memories of sincere and honest witnesses.

The Gospels remind us that the apostles sometimes had a hard time trusting Jesus. His assurances that he would be raised from the dead fell on incredulous ears. One Sunday of the paschal season is given over to recalling a saint who personifies skepticism. The apostle Thomas was unwilling to believe his friends’ testimony that Jesus had returned to life until he had not only seen the risen Lord with his own eyes but put his fingers into the wounds left by the nails and the spear.

For the skeptically minded, belief in such things is a bridge too far; for the hard-core skeptic, the only things that can be trusted are the things we can weigh and measure and count and photograph.

Ultimately faith, another word for trust, is a life-defining decision. It’s something we do, not just an idea or opinion — a cognitive state. While it’s natural for us to be skeptical, it’s also natural to be pulled with tidal force toward Christian belief as summarized in the Creed. As Orthodox Christians, one of the main ways we respond to the tension of doubt challenging faith is by participating in the liturgical life of the Church. Here we are strengthened not only by our own deepest longings but by the faith of the community that surrounds us as well as the ever-present but unseen cloud of witnesses represented by the icons that encircle us.

Taking a leap of trust in the Gospels can be a hard struggle. Unless you’ve grown up deeply rooted in Christianity and slipped through adolescence and early adulthood without passing through hurricanes of doubt, following Christ is equivalent to walking on water.

A Christian is someone who has decided to trust the Gospels — to trust this particular unique and demanding narrative. It’s a decision to try to shape our lives around the words and actions and parables of Jesus, thus to meditate on those sayings of Jesus as if the truth and wisdom they contain were a matter of life and death — because in fact they are.

In the Orthodox liturgy there are two processions, one of the book, one of the bread and wine. In the first, the book is held aloft and the entire congregation bows toward it. What book? It’s not the Bible or even the New Testament. It’s a slim book containing only the four Gospels. In it we hear Christ’s guiding voice. The procession culminates in placing the book on the altar.

In the second procession we bow again, this time toward the bread and wine which, once blessed and consecrated, bring Christ’s body and blood into our own body and blood. We trust in the living presence of Christ and its efficacy to make us whole and save us.

Belief is an action of trust, and so is communion: Christ trusting in us and us trusting in him. We choose in trust to unite ourselves with him who is love itself, him who is pure mercy, with him who equips us to become people of love and mercy, him who trusts us to reveal the Gospel to others not by argument but by witness. This makes trust the very tissue that holds the Church together, and maintaining that trust is the challenge we face as Christians every day of our lives. Like the father of the boy with the evil spirit in the gospel of Mark, we struggle with unbelief even as we believe: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

* * *

Jim Forest — a Reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands — is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, as well as several books for children: Saint Nicholas and the Nine Golden Coins, Saint George and the Dragon and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue. He is also international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — www.incommunion.org. His web site is www.jimandnancyforest.com.

* * *

The Image of the Whole Earth as Icon

(article in summer 2019 issue of The Wheel)

By Jim Forest

For the past fifty years I’ve been living with a remarkable photograph. I’m looking at it now. It was taken on the 16th of July 1969 by an astronaut who was gazing at his home planet through a thick glass window. I wonder if he didn’t feel like a new Bartimaeus — a man born blind whose eyes have been miraculously opened?

Four days later the Apollo 11 mission reached the moon, an event many millions of people watched on television. In my case, I listened to it via earphones in a cell fourteen bars wide in a maximum-security prison in central Wisconsin. Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War — I had been one of fourteen people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence — in fact just over one year, given the “good behavior” factor. My new address was the sort of grim prison you see in classic crime movies: tier upon tier of cells reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks, a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps even more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on television. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. It was astounding to envisage human beings crossing that airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing — then walking — on the Moon’s arid surface.

In the days that followed the safe return of Apollo 11, as newspapers and magazines made their way to me, I clipped out many of the photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the delivery of a carefully-wrapped packet containing an original print on thick Kodak paper of one of the astronauts’ photos of the Earth — the blue Mediterranean in the center, an orange and green Africa beneath it, a pale green Italy and Spain above, the night’s darkness to the right hiding India, many swirls of clouds. I was astonished at the intense verdant green of the Nile Delta.

The return address on the package was NASA.

The prison administration had made it difficult for me to receive the photo. NASA wasn’t an “authorized correspondent.” I was given the option of the packet being destroyed or being returned-to-sender. At last the warden gave way and it was delivered to my cell. For the rest of my time in prison the photo rested on top of the small table each convict was allowed.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter. I could only guess.

Our trial had received a great deal of press attention, including articles in The New York Times. Perhaps something I had said in court about our borderless planet had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back? I could only guess that his sending me a photo was his way of saying, “What you imagined, I saw.”

If I was right about the sender being one of the three astronauts, the donor was an officer in the U.S. Air Force while I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Which of the astronauts might it have been? A statement from Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins makes Collins a good guess.

“I really believe,” he wrote, “that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. Those all-important borders would be invisible, our noisy arguments silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.” [Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974]

The vibrant image of the whole Earth gradually revealed itself as an icon. In its deep stillness, it became a center point for prayer and an object of contemplation — this planet without borders, not one of whose population is unloved by God, a planet given us to share and care for, to love and protect, a fragile home in a universe beyond all measurement and knowing.

We may live in this or that country, but our national addresses are just street numbers along the same boulevard. We all live on this amazing speck of blue, white, green and orange with a thin layer of life-nurturing air wrapped around it. Our home.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we Christians are neither Jew nor Greek. It’s a text that invites additions. We are also neither American nor Russian, Indian or Ukrainian, Korean nor Saudi, black nor white, but one people for whom, in the vastness of God’s mercy, Christ became incarnate, lived, died and rose from the dead.

>> A suggestion: Carry a whole Earth photo with you on your mobile phone. Wear it as a badge. Add it to your icon corner.

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The Return of the Felon

I’m writing an autobiography, the working title of which is Writing Straight with Crooked Lines. There is a certain amount of archeology in writing a memoir. Shovel in hand, I’ve been exploring old files that I haven’t looked at in decades. One of the discoveries today was an article I wrote for Commonweal just after I was released from prison after serving just over half of a two-year sentence for burning draft records. I see my writing style in those days was somewhat Dan Berrignaesque… Jim / 1 July 2019

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by Jim Forest / Commonweal / July 10, 1970

No matter how monastic the convict, the best thing about going to prison is the joy there is in leaving. “Go to prison,” I’m tempted to say. “There is no other way to have one of the best experiences life has to offer: getting out.”

Hard not to be ?ippant about it. It’s been less than two weeks since the classic gate scene was performed for my bene?t: “Well, Forest,” the gate guard actually said, “it certainly is encouraging whenever I see someone leave this way.” (It wasn’t long ago that several climbed over the high double fence, the barbed wire retaining only one faded prison khaki winter jacket.) “I do hope you’ll never be back.”

And so do I.

The reasons — best said by analogy — are several:

Prisons are small socialist states of the least imaginative, most bureaucratic sort. The maximum-security prison, with its layers of barred cages, is perhaps Albania. The medium-security prison (correctional institution!) is post-occupation Czechoslovakia. The multitude of minimum-security labor camps, depending on staff, range in quality from Sweden (very rare) to East Germany (common). Wisconsin reportedly has one of the better prison systems, which is akin to the likelihood that once upon a time there were “better” stretch racks. In any event, it is likely that most states maintain prison systems that are more toward the Albania/East Germany end of the spectrum.

Or, not gray welfare states, they are Nazi schools. In the century-old limestone walls of Wisconsin’s maximum-security prison, Waupun, a penitentiary that could have been the set for any James Cagney Big House movie, one of the ?rst questions asked by a fellow con was, “How do you like our kindergarten?” That’s it, I thought; the thing about this place is you’re treated like a kid. But then chewing on the idea, as one does during those era-long hours alone in a Volkswagen-sized cell, I realized that most kindergartens were considerably better and more human-respecting than this. The difference was that this was a compulsory, Reich-run, live-in kindergarten for Jewish 5-year-olds. And that realization still has the ring of truth to it.

But there is yet a better one. Go see Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 again, the part between earth apes with bone hammers and genetic rebirth in the light-show fall into electri?ed sheaves of day-glo wallpaper, the part of space ships and space stations. Both are variations on a theme, though the space station’s wheel-shape is more appropriate to the prison essence. Again there are elements of compulsion — the on-going programming, the making of one’s life into a computer-digestible punch card. Again there is the tyranny of state — stainless steel robot breast brushing in upon the terrifying vulnerability of private consciousness and ?esh. Again there is the Nazi-boarding-school sterility — as if a freeze-drying of the genitals.

But in space stations and prisons, the essence is more pure. The bed is literally empty. The programming is complete. The Hal computer, though a less conversational model, is everywhere in evidence. And there is that overwhelming circularity.

The menu is circling — in one prison its orbit requiring more days than another, but always the equinox returns, the seasons of spaghetti and breaded pork chop renewed, a kind of greasy spring.

The programs are circling. The same class seems to be eternally recycling in the prison school. The same group-counseling session is forever on the edge of learning that children believe their parents and that prisoners were instructed from birthday onward that they weren’t worth the forceps that pulled them from the womb. The same desk, the same ?le cabinet, the same license plate, the same Stop sign, the same khaki shirt forever being re-made in the prison factories…

The warden is circling: he beat his desk with his ?st yesterday and yelled, “I am the warden!” And he’ll do it again today and he’ll say it again tomorrow. He’ll say it before and after he says there is no race problem in his prison, that we don’t punish, that the hole isn’t the hole (it’s intensive therapy), that there is no erosion of staff morale, that things are getting better, that we don’t care what you write or say so long as you say it according to regulations and through proper channels…

The rituals are circling: between such and such a minute, the mail is to be had, the meal to be eaten, the clean khakis to be gotten, the monthly fruit order to be submitted, the canteen purchase to be completed, the room cleaning to be performed.

Time is delineated in circlings: “Only 43 more room inspections!” “Only 13 more fruit orders!” “Only 214 more sets of khakis!”

There is an even more signi?cant similarity: it is the prison’s distance from the planet Earth. It is as if the walls and fences were more measurable in light hours than in yards.

In 2001, there was the birthday transmission to one of the bored astronauts, a stiff family event complete with the blowing out of candles, all received in color on a screen in immaculate quarters forever immune to the roots of grass, and all arriving via the delay to which even light is subject. The transmission seems less real than a chapter from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

There is that mythical quality about events beyond prison. Surely there is a conspiracy of Tolkiens out there, a committee that does nothing but fabricate a myth-context that is supposed to be a warming-mitten around the penitential space station? Imagine! This letter is alleged to be from a person who doesn’t live in prison! This newspaper supposedly describes a world without cell inspections, a world where it is possible to sleep in company with others!

Hobbits are more real.

And so we believe and yet we don’t believe.

And the sense of existence, of I-ness disintegrates. However large the rock upon which one’s name had been carved, the rock cracks and then crumbles and the sand that’s left is desperately kept in an envelope. The self tries to believe that once this was a rock and once there was a name on it — my name! Or was it? Am I dreaming? Is the sand real? Was there ever a rock? My name?

Minds kept long times in cells know too powerfully the energy of dreams, too well the reality of fantasy.

What is real are the bars. The cell is real. The warden is real. The form requesting permission to write an unauthorized correspondent is real.

And yet there are those who, in more than body, survive prison, even ripen. It is a better proof of the existence of God than any in the Summa. Whatever answer is currently fashionable on the question of miracles, miracles remain the best proof that God gives. That this ?nger still strikes typewriter keys, that the felon-writer still imagines communication—there you have a miracle, and no small one.

Jim Forest, just paroled from the Wisconsin prison system after a year’s punishment for participation in draft-record destruction, is co-chairman of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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Reflections on Daniel Berrigan

Lecture at Villanova University, 9 June 2019

By Jim Forest

I first met Dan Berrigan in 1961, thanks to Dorothy Day. Dorothy brought me with her to a small gathering in Harlem at which Dan presented a paper on Catholic social teaching and the impact of Pope John XXIII. Dan was introduced to us as a poet who had won the Lamont Poetry Prize and was currently teaching New Testament studies at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York.

I didn’t see him again until a few years later, mid-June 1964, when he was on sabbatical and I was one of several Catholic participants in a traveling seminar headed to Prague, where we were to participate in an ecumenical conference of Christians, east and west, concerned about peace. It was during this trip that our friendship took root.

Dan was already in Paris, our first stop, when we arrived. At the time he was chaplain to a group of students at St Severin parish on the Left Bank. I asked what had brought him from Syracuse to France? It was due, he said, to his liturgical innovations — saying the Mass in English well before such usage was officially authorized — plus his engagement in the local civil rights movement, jeopardizing contributions to the university from donors whose businesses practices resembled those of the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge. These impolitic activities had caused tension between him and the college administration. After six years teaching theology at Le Moyne, Dan had been given a year-long sabbatical in France — “a sugar-coated exile,” Dan commented, “but what a place to be!”

We traveled on together from Paris to Rome and then to Prague. One night in Prague the several Catholics participating in the seminar resolved to found, on our return to the U.S., a group we christened the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Our main goal would be to organize Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War, then in its early stages as far as America was concerned, and as part of that endeavor launch a national program to make better known the fact that conscientious objection to war is an option for Catholics.

Both of us back in New York, Dan was assigned to be one of the editors of Jesuit Missions, a monthly magazine, and I left my job — at the time I was a reporter for a daily newspaper — to work full-time for the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Tom Cornell, another former editor of The Catholic Worker, soon joined me. Beginning in January 1965, the three of us normally met once a week in Dan’s one-room apartment for Mass, to discuss letters the CPF had lately received, and to decide on other aspects of our work.

How to respond to the worsening conflict in Vietnam was a factor in every meeting. “I returned to the United States,” Dan later recalled, “convinced of one simple thing — the war in Vietnam could only grow worse…. [We Americans] were about to repeat the already bankrupt experience of the French. I [was] afflicted with a sense that my life was being truly launched — for the first time — upon mortal and moral events that might indeed overwhelm me, as the tidal violence of world events churned them into an even greater fury…. I had a sense that this war would be [my] making or breaking.”

One of the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s significant initiatives was publishing a booklet, Catholics and Conscientious Objection. I was the author; Dan was one of the editorial advisors and Thomas Merton another. Its orthodoxy was certified by an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York. The booklet remains my all-time best seller — we distributed more than 300,000 copies. The booklet plays a part in explaining how it is that so many thousands of young Catholics refused to fight in Vietnam.

Dan was of course pleased that the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was having a definite impact in building opposition to the war but by 1968 decided it was time not only for education and opposition but resistance. On the 17th of May, with his brother Phil and seven others, he burned 378 draft records in a parking lot adjacent to a draft center in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb. The event was headline news. The Catonsville Nine are still being talked about.

Dan’s was nothing if not a writer. When he died in April 2016, age 94, he left a legacy of more than sixty books of prose and poetry. But the text he is best known for is quite short — a two-page declaration in which he explained what led him to Catonsville. Here are extracts:

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children….

“All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims, to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say: Killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness are the only order we recognize.

“For the sake of that order we risk our liberty, our good name…. How many … must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder? When, at what point, will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here.

“Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar and Mars…. They embrace their society with all their heart and abandon the cross. They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death….”

The nine defendants argued in court that attempts to impede an immoral and illegal war and to prevent the commission of war crimes should be seen as legally justified, like running a red light to get a gravely injured child to the hospital. Unfortunately, the court was unwilling to hear arguments that put war itself on trial. Though convicted and sentenced to three years confinement, for a time the nine were free on bail while the judgment was being appealed. During that intermezzo of court-authorized freedom, Dan wrote a play based on the trial of the nine. It’s something of a modern Greek drama in the tradition of “Antigone.” The script has become assigned reading in many classrooms. The play continues to be performed all over the world.

Declining to exit the stage in order to begin serving his sentence as scheduled, the ever-theatrical Dan went underground. Sheltering in a Sherwood Forest of friends and friends of friends, Dan led the FBI on a Robin Hood-like chase that lasted four months. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, poet and theologian, was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. In the annals of crime in America, he was the only person ever promoted to that august rank who never possessed a deadly weapon or posed a threat to anyone’s life. The wanted poster should have included a sentence: “This man is disarmed and dangerous.” While in hiding Dan did television and newspaper interviews and even preached in church one Sunday morning. I had a meeting with him one evening in an apartment a short walk from the FBI’s Manhattan headquarters. Dan seemed to be available to anyone and everyone except FBI agents. Finally he was found and handcuffed while staying with friends on Block Island.

It takes a book to review all that happened in Dan’s life — a remarkable journey in which the homeless, the gravely ill, those dying of AIDs, the unborn, all played a part. Dan taught in various schools and traveled widely. New books by him appeared every year. He was arrested over and over again for acts of protest. Dan’s life was shaped by the conviction that God does not sanction killing and that the way to heaven is the way of nonviolence and mercy.

If you are drawn to take a closer look at his life, I recommend my biography of him, At Play in the Lions’ Den. Let me read to you a shortened version of the book’s last chapter.

Dan was the target of sharp criticism through much of his adult life, but lived long enough to witness some validations. Not least he saw a fellow Jesuit with a similar conscience elected pope and take the name Francis, thus linking his pontificate to the poor man of Assisi who became a missionary of mercy and an enemy of war. He lived to hear the same pope stand before both Houses of Congress and single out for praise two of Dan’s principal mentors, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton

Just months before Dan’s heart stopped beating, the Vatican hosted a global meeting of peacemakers who proposed that it was time to bury the “just war” doctrine and focus instead on nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and what makes for a just peace. In all the sixteen centuries of the just war theory, it was pointed out at the conference, no national hierarchy had ever condemned as unjust any war its nation’s military was engaged in. Dan was one of those who has helped speed the day when Christians could no longer attach the adjectives “just” or “holy” to the word “war.”

Dan was easy to love but even late in life he could be a challenging person to be with. While he wasn’t a recruiting sergeant, he made clear to all who encountered him that the possibility exists to reshape one’s life around the beatitude of peacemaking: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Saying “no” to any death-centered activity is an integral part of such a commitment. Dan’s life raised the question: as a step in the right direction, how about shaking the dust out of your life with an act of protest, even little civil disobedience, now and then? Would a sabbatical in jail, even a brief one, be such a bad idea? In any event, get out of the tomb and make some gestures, however modest, that favor life.

In my own case Dan helped me imagine taking a step — becoming one of fourteen people to burn draft records in Milwaukee in September 1968 — that I might otherwise not have taken. I am in debt to Dan for nudging me over the cliff of my own fears.

Dan had powerful convictions but was not self-righteous. One of the things Dan showed me was that you don’t have to wag a scolding finger at others in the effort to live and advocate a peaceful life. Accusations seldom change anyone’s mind. Glares don’t convert. You can be as absolute as Dan about not killing anyone and at the same time enjoy the company of people who don’t agree with you and perhaps never will. In his writing and lectures, Dan could be as unyielding on life-and-death issues as Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments in hand, but in face-to-face encounters he had an amazing gift to make space for and welcome the other, to tell stories and jokes, to create bridges of affinity and laughter. In Ireland, arguing the virtues of nonviolence with a leader of the far-from-nonviolent I.R.A., Dan realized how much he liked the man despite their radically different views. It didn’t make their differences less significant or their verbal jousting more restrained, but their mutual affection put a dimension of love into their exchange.

Dan, like many others involved in anti-war protest, was often described as “a peace activist,” but it’s worth noting that he was far from being a full-time activist. In one letter to me he remarked that many “good people are overworked and underjoyed.” He loved cooking and rarely ate alone. He enjoyed a glass or two of wine at the end of the day — or a martini, if one were available. Daily walks were a major part of his spiritual life. I cannot recall Dan ever being in a hurry.

“Unless you’re coming from somewhere, you’re not going anywhere,” he said from time to time. What the “somewhere” Dan was coming from is not easily described, but silence and sacrament were essential elements and helped keep him from being underjoyed. So were the works of mercy, most of all being with the sick. A great deal of Dan’s life was spent caring for the gravely ill. He became “a listener of last resort” to countless people dying of cancer or AIDS.

One of Dan’s great talents was friendship. He was a delight to be with, loved to have guests and to cook for them, often enjoyed company on his daily walk, listened closely and remembered what others had said, never saw Mass as a solitary event but as a seed of community. When a friend was in need, Dan often found ways to help. On one occasion, aware I badly needed money to fix up my decrepit, uninsulated apartment, he signed over to me a check big enough to cover all the basic expenses of making it more weatherproof. I was astonished — still am.

I have known many people who lived what one might call Jesus-shaped lives, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton among them. Dan was another. Such people remind those who encounter them of the Gospels. These are people who, in ways large and small, lay down their lives for their neighbor, including the hostile neighbor, the enemy. One can make no sense of the pivotal choices Dan made in his long life apart from the New Testament.

In a conversation he and I were having one afternoon with a group of students, I recall Dan saying that everyone has a god — that life is impossible without some center point in one’s life. One’s micro-god might be national identity, an ideology, politics, science, a religious institution, a baseball team, a theory about health and the ideal diet, might be celebrities, might be Hollywood, might be just about anything. But, Dan proposed, if you’re going to have a god, it might as well be God, capital G. Then the big project begins: the lifelong quest of finding who God is and why we exist and why such great hopes have been placed upon us — the love of creation, the care of life.

In contrast to his athletic brother Phil, Dan didn’t look like a warrior, but he was a brave man, not only in his many actions in opposing war and militarism but in challenging his friends on issues about which they took a militant opposing view. Like many of the early feminists, Dan was an outspoken opponent of abortion. He saw life whole, from womb to deathbed, and tried to inspire protection of life every inch of the way. Parting company with many friends, Dan had the courage to raise his voice on behalf those tiny humans awaiting birth as well as women who, in various ways, were being pushed toward abortion.

Dan’s commitment to the unborn was in part inspired by the gratitude and wonder awakened in him by the Eden-like beauty of children’s faces, a beauty so often dulled as we get older and fears deform us — such powerful fears as being out of step with our peer group.

How often children figured in his writing and how easily Dan connected with children… I recall how much he enjoyed playing with our own kids during his stays with us after my work brought me to Holland. In one of my favorite photos of him, he is playing catch with our five-year-old daughter Cait in the parking lot behind our house. As a house gift at the end of one visit he left this poem:

If war is about children,
so is peace.
We cannot put things off,
put off peacemaking,
any more than we can put off
the discomforts
of a child’s hunger or thirst
in favor of our own comfort.

One of the achievements of Dan’s life is that somehow he remained a Jesuit. It wasn’t always easy. He once sent me, a young man not even thirty at the time, to intercede for him with his provincial at a point when there was a more than even chance that Dan would be “given the Jonah option,” that is thrown overboard. Following the Catonsville action and other less famous crimes and misdemeanors, many of his fellow Jesuits made their distaste for him and what he represented quite clear. It’s not only remarkable that he hung on but that he wanted to hang on. Happily, by the time he reached old age, many, perhaps most, of his Jesuit adversaries had come not only to respect Dan but to take pride in his being a Jesuit. In some cases he even changed their minds.

In a period when celibacy was regarded by many as an indication of mental illness, Dan remained a celibate and even managed to joke about it. I recall an exchange with Dan at a Student Christian Movement conference in Sheffield, England in 1973. The question was raised, “Father Dan, would you please explain celibacy?” Without missing a beat, Dan replied, “Forgive me, I forgot to bring my celibacy slide show.” Much laughter, but that was all the answer the questioner pried out of him.

As I can bear witness, Dan was unjudgmental, even sympathetic, toward those whose sexual lives had gone off the church-sanctioned tracks in various directions, but he clung to celibacy — he once described it as sexual solitude — like a barnacle to a ship’s hull. Though he had great compassion for those, like myself, who had failed in attempts at marriage, he tried to inspire fidelity and perseverance. In a letter I received from him in 1973, Dan reminded me that he was “a priest for whom marriage is sacred, a sacrament, sealed with Christ’s love. This is a very deep thing with me; faithful love. I have tried in my own life to take this course, with fits and starts, but at least a clear vision of the summons; to be a sign of this.”

At the center of Dan’s life was the Mass. Looking back over my old journals while writing this book, I found these words of his celebrating bread, every fragment of which is a reminder of the eucharistic bread: “When I hear the sound of bread breaking I see something else. It seems almost as though God never meant us to do anything else. So beautiful a sound. The crust breaks up like manna and falls all over everything and then we eat. Bread gets inside humans.” His greatest gift may have been the path he opened (or in many cases re-opened) to eucharistic life and faith for people who had been estranged from almost everything.

“The good is to be done because it is good,” Dan said in an interview, “not because it goes somewhere. I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go. We have not lost everything because we lost today.”

Once asked by a journalist if he thought he was on the right track, Dan replied, “Well, I’m embarrassed when I compare what I am with what I should be.” It was a modest response. Dan loved the word “modesty” and used it often. Be modest about what you are doing, be modest in your expectations of what your acts of witness will accomplish, be modest about who you are. Do your best but get used to failure. It’s God who made the world and God who saves it, not you, not me. But be confident that whatever you do to safeguard life is not wasted.

Daniel Berrigan, pray for us.

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Draft as of 10 May 2019
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